As we evolve as a society, we have to keep in mind that there was a time when it was acceptable to legally own other people; a time when the mentally ill were generally considered to be possessed by evil spirits; a time when men legally shot each other in officiated duels; a time when public hangings were attended as a family outing complete with picnic basket; a time when public floggings were considered acceptable punishment; a time when it was a gentleman’s agreement that husbands should not beat their wives with a switch that was ‘bigger-round than your thumb’ (which later became known as ‘the rule of thumb’); and there was a time when there were no laws against parents severely beating their children (killing children was unacceptable, of course, but an occasional accidental maiming as a result of disciplinary measures was tolerated).
Two things occur from watching the agonisingly slow process of our political and social development –
The first is the observation there is always a tension between the way we have done things before and the way decent progress improves them. No matter how manifestly wrong something is, it can have its champions and supporters. Slavery. Public Hangings. Torture. The beating of children – still sanctioned and practised in many American Schools.
The second is the question – Why is progress so slow, especially in cases where the remedy for a problem is so manifestly, provably apparent? There are no studies that support the efficacy of corporal punishment on children. And yet it continues, because it has always been done that way, but also because the powers that be have to defend the status quo. Of course they must. If they accede that the status quo is wrong, then they, powerful people that they are, have failed to change it, and are therefore ineffectual.
If something is manifestly wrong such that a great protest movement arises, then it’s a challenge to the powers that be on two fronts – first because the protestors are seeking to change something that’s outside the remit of their powers, and second because the people in power must admit of their failure should they deign to listen to the protests. The only context in which they can allow themselves to hear protest is one where they style themselves as the explainers of the wisdom of the old way of doing things. Of course they must. Otherwise they must admit that they have failed. This is why progress is so painfully slow, always. The things that are protested of are invariably problems which the powerful are immune to. It’s a slur on the powerful to suggest that they have failed to notice a problem, or having noticed one, failed to fix it.
How then, to speed up progress?
Is it more effective protest? Taking to the streets can certainly provide what seems like dramatic change on occasion, or at least a dramatic marker in the history of an issue. But taking to the streets provides an iceberg-like protest movement, where the real mass of the people inclined to protest is represented by a small minority who bear the experience of being the part of the mass that extends above the surface, often to their own great misfortune.
Surely in the age of the internet we can find a new kind of protest movement where the whole iceberg can make its presence felt.